Ami Barak is the curator of the next edition of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, which will take place in September 2017. Invited to create a series of exhibitions and activities devoted to contemporary photography, he decided to explore the theme of the document and the ambiguity of images, and to examine whether it is still possible to have an objective picture of the world. Involved in public programs and events, including La Nuit Blanche in Paris and in Toronto, an exhibition curator who has extensively explored the work of Taryn Simon and Douglas Gordon, and a teacher, Barak defines himself as a “conservator.” He defends the high standards of those who take care of artworks and artists and look closely and watchfully at both established artists and a generation of emerging creators. In Montreal, he is planning an extensive program of exhibitions, intersecting international and national contexts to challenge our relationship with photography in an era when the daily image is omnipresent and proliferating.
An interview by Claire Moeder
CM: To create your conception of the next edition of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, you focused on images that activate the definition of the document and the question of the veracity of what we look at. How did you decide on this approach?
AB: This approach to photography has been a constant for me. I have pursued it from the first exhibitions that I organized in the early 1990s, which juxtaposed the Dusseldorf school and the Bechers, with the protagonists Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky, against the Vancouver school composed of artists Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Ken Lum. These two approaches were “objectivist” because they were based on a search for objectivity.
The exhibitions produced for Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal will not deviate from this approach and these positions and will be in continuity with my career. In the past, I produced numerous exhibitions in which the image was used as a material of predilection, more than anything else. In Montreal, my intention is to affirm a subjectivity and a particular exhibition signature through thematic exhibitions. For this purpose, I insisted on creating an event that is expressed more as a single group exhibition, which I have defined as a main exhibition, than a series of individual exhibitions. I am interested in supporting a theme with a more articulated deployment in which the works are side by side, in dialogue with and reflecting each other to substantiate and highlight the ideas.
CM: Can this approach to photography, placed under the aegis of objectivism and addressed by you in the past, be pursued today?
AB: I have not changed my relationship with photography, even though photography has changed direction constantly. Historically, objectivity was invalidated following the Dusseldorf school. There were radical changes related to the evolution of the status of the image and the medium itself. Digital photography created a real earthquake: now, images are everywhere and nowhere. In a sense, we could consider that it has become a sort of syndrome of absolute democracy: everyone is a photographer, takes pictures, and is convinced that his or her images are absolute evidence. The photographic gesture is everywhere; it has become something natural.
CM: It seems that this omnipresent photographic gesture requires a change in the aesthetic evaluation of images, our relationship with them, and our capacity to formulate theoretical tools for comprehension. How does this global democratization change our thinking about photography?
AB: Photography is no longer a defined object that may be determined, for example, by its support, as was the case for silver photography, and based on an essentialist philosophy that makes it possible to define borders. Today, the image, formed of millions of pixels, has become immaterial and falls within an excessively complicated context in which it becomes difficult to know where the image is. This leads us to rethink the image in a completely different way. Such a redefinition is linked no longer to processes as such, but to the way in which we may think of the ultimate purpose of the image. What can this image teach us and what can it inform us about? And according to which value criteria? For even here, there is no longer any levelling, or any hierarchy, in value judgments; we are no longer able to judge.
I am interested, in fact, in artists who use fixed images and video to support a political discourse or a sociological charge.
CM: So, what role could the artist have in this “ocean of images,” within this dizzying context in which we are compulsively producing images?
AB: In the postwar context there was a rupture and the birth of what I will call a “radical tradition”: from minimalism to conceptual art, via happenings, situationism, and Arte Povera, the object was distanced and dissected and the plastic artist’s gaze became predominant. Photography, however, took a different path: it forsook the tradition of evidentiary photography to find itself confronting “event-related” photography. The new art photography posed the question no longer of a print or a format, but of the status and purpose of the image. Artists introduced an aspect of attitude into their approach and took a position toward the subjectivity specific to the photographic act. I note also that this idea of calling upon an image to defend a thesis is becoming a constant. Now, images are made with the desire to bear a message, linked to a gaze or a critical attitude in which “what you see is not what you get.”
The artist’s image has become an image of the real, whereas the image of the real has not become an artist’s image. The thrust of aesthetic adrenaline is maximal: the artist takes the image far from a semblance of the real. Even in a search for objectivity, one recognizes these images as falling under their signature. The reality of the artistic approach has taken the place of the real.
In this context, artists are trying to find a form of expression, a type of approach that sets them apart. They appeal to images only when they have a project for which the image has a specific role. They use photography, video, or even return to the object in an approach in which discourse takes priority over medium. I am interested, in fact, in artists who use fixed images and video to support a political discourse or a sociological charge. Here, the question of the document becomes a political question, with an activist dimension. A good example is Taryn Simon’s Innocence project: the image is a piece of evidence in a trial, it serves as proof.
CM: How does the theme chosen for Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal intersect with this highly subjective fabrication of the image?
AB: For the theme of the next Mois de la Photo à Montréal, What Does the Image Refer To?, I wanted to refer to the fact that, for artists who use photography in a significant manner, the idea is no longer to take pictures, but to use them astutely. This consists of saying that the image has never been a window on the world, despite what the collective unconscious continues to consider the truth of the image. I want to bring together artists whose work constitutes an advance. And, in the spirit, I am trying to show that there exist positions that have been constant across the generations. There is renewal, of course, but also something that fades in every generation, something that is presented in the form of ricochets, returns, reprises, and that continues for many years.
CM: What makes photography unique today?
AB: Photography has settled down, but it may still rise up. The artists of the new generation are still laying claim to great freedom, a freedom that was inscribed in radical postwar research. We are the continuers of this radical tradition, even if certain artists use photography only, or even if they move on to installation or performance or other media. In other cases, the image is used as a sort of third material for the establishment of mechanisms in three dimensions. This does not necessarily renew practices, but it shows the share of freedom in a context in which use of the image has become a kind of democratic excess, a context in which everyone makes images.
CM: You will touch upon a different geographic and identity-related era with Montreal. What will that change for you?
AB: We are experiencing a revolution in community that abolishes borders and opens up to a global village. I am particularly interested in these “glocal” cultural horizons, a mixture of global and local, in order to understand how diversity constitutes a formidable wealth within the great human family. One of my early aspirations was to bring Asia, Europe, and the Americas together. In fact, I have a personal and philosophical interest in diversity that integrates the First Nations. It is interesting to look at this in a transversal way, without making ghettos, so that we are able, on the contrary, to promote the existing diversity.
The artists of the new First Nations generation are doing remarkably intelligent, well-positioned work that points out partisan and racist failures and attitudes. These communities, which have been marginalized, today want to take their place in our societies with a sophisticated and intelligent form of identity-based expression. This is the issue of globalization. So how can we manage to keep our finger on the horizon?
Translated by Käthe Roth
Claire Moeder is a curator, author, and commentator. She has appeared on the Web and on radio, and has written for a number of magazines (Spirale, Esse, Ciel variable, Zone occupée, Marges) and books on photography (Mois de la Photo à Montréal, Christian Marclay). She has attended a number of research residencies (ISCP, Est-Nord-Est, La Chambre Blanche). She has organized individual exhibitions (Sayeh Sarfaraz, Jacinthe Lessard-L.) and recently presented a group exhibition devoted to current uses of the image (Optica).